How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

Alan Jacobs

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

Navigate a complex world with essential critical thinking skills and insights from Alan Jacobs' insightful survival guide.

Key Terms

What is the central message or theme of the book?

The book addresses the challenges people face in engaging with complex and divisive issues, where social media, echo chambers, and tribalism can hinder thoughtful and open-minded discussions. Jacobs emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself, embracing intellectual humility, and being willing to change one's mind based on evidence and reasoned arguments.

The central message revolves around the idea of becoming more self-aware of our cognitive biases, prejudices, and emotional reactions that can impede rational thinking. Jacobs encourages readers to escape the constraints of rigid ideological frameworks and engage in charitable and empathetic thinking, which involves genuinely understanding and representing the perspectives of others, even if they differ significantly from our own.

By promoting open-mindedness, respect for diverse viewpoints, and a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue, "How to Think" offers readers a guide to navigate the information-saturated and polarized landscape of the modern world while striving to become more thoughtful, reflective, and effective thinkers.

What problem does the book address or seek to solve?

Alan Jacobs, a cultural critic and professor of humanities, examines how people often retreat into echo chambers and filter bubbles that reinforce their existing beliefs, leading to a lack of understanding and empathy for those with differing perspectives. This kind of tribalistic thinking can hinder open dialogue, critical thinking, and cooperation, ultimately contributing to the fragmentation and division in society.

Through the book, Jacobs offers insights and practical strategies on how individuals can break free from tribalistic thought patterns, cultivate intellectual humility, and engage in more constructive, empathetic, and open-minded conversations with others, even when disagreements arise. The ultimate goal is to encourage a healthier and more productive way of thinking that promotes understanding, learning, and mutual respect despite living in a world that is often characterized by conflicting viewpoints and ideologies.

What unique insights or perspectives does the book offer?

  • Understanding Tribalism: Jacobs delves into the concept of tribalism and how it affects our thinking and decision-making processes. He explores how people tend to align with like-minded groups, which can lead to closed-mindedness and the rejection of differing perspectives.
  • Overcoming Confirmation Bias: The book offers practical guidance on recognizing and combating confirmation bias, a common cognitive bias where individuals seek out information that supports their existing beliefs while dismissing or ignoring contradictory evidence.
  • Emphasizing Empathy: Jacobs underscores the importance of empathy in productive dialogue and critical thinking. He encourages readers to try to understand the underlying motivations and emotions of those with differing views, creating opportunities for more constructive conversations.

What notable anecdotes or stories are featured in the book?

  • The Role of Humility: The author highlights the significance of intellectual humility and the willingness to admit when one is wrong or uncertain. Embracing humility can open the door to growth and learning, even in the face of disagreement.
  • Navigating Information Overload: In a world inundated with information, "How to Think" offers strategies for navigating the sea of data and distinguishing between reliable sources and misinformation.
  • The Influence of Social Media: Jacobs explores the impact of social media on our thinking and behavior. He discusses how these platforms can reinforce echo chambers and encourage knee-jerk reactions rather than thoughtful analysis.
  • Identifying Fake News and Propaganda: The book equips readers with tools to identify and critically assess misleading information and propaganda, promoting a more discerning approach to media consumption.
  • Cultivating Intellectual Virtues: How to Think advocates for the cultivation of intellectual virtues such as patience, intellectual courage, and open-mindedness. These qualities are essential for engaging in constructive dialogue and critical thinking.
  • Encouraging Dialogical Thinking: Jacobs emphasizes the importance of engaging in dialogical thinking, which involves not just listening to others but actively entering into conversations with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

What are some of the best quotes from the book?

"Avoid tribal thinking that pits 'us' against 'them.'"

"The best thinkers approach problems with curiosity and a desire for understanding."

"Thinking requires a commitment to truth and accuracy."

"Avoid simplistic black-and-white thinking; the world is often more complex."

"Thinking critically doesn't mean being negative; it means being discerning."

"A willingness to change your mind is a sign of intellectual maturity."

"Consider the long-term consequences of your beliefs and actions."

"Critical thinking involves analyzing arguments and evidence carefully."

"Think for yourself rather than letting others do the thinking for you."

"Be aware of cognitive biases that can hinder clear thinking."

"Avoid echo chambers that reinforce your existing beliefs."

"The best thinkers are open-minded and willing to consider alternative viewpoints."

"Don't let emotions cloud your ability to think objectively."

"Thinking requires engaging with ideas and arguments, not just dismissing them."

"Resist the temptation to jump on bandwagons of popular opinions."

"Intellectual humility is the foundation of good thinking."

"Consider the context and background of information to think critically about it."

"Don't mistake being well-informed with thinking well."

"Listen carefully to others' perspectives before forming your own conclusions."

"The key to good thinking is a willingness to learn and change your mind."

"Good thinking requires slowing down and resisting snap judgments."

"Thinking is not just about having answers but about asking better questions."

"To think, you must be your own person, your own thinker."

"Thinking is hard work, and that is why so few people bother to do it."

"Thinking is the process of converting beliefs into knowledge."

How can reading this book benefit or inspire the reader?

  • Developing Critical Thinking Skills: Alan Jacobs offers practical insights and strategies for cultivating critical thinking abilities. He encourages readers to question their own assumptions and biases, think independently, and engage with diverse perspectives. This can help readers become more discerning, thoughtful, and open-minded in their approach to information and ideas.
  • Navigating Polarization: In an increasingly divided world, the book provides tools to navigate ideological and political polarization. Jacobs explores the tribal tendencies and cognitive biases that contribute to echo chambers and groupthink, helping readers understand how to escape such traps and engage constructively with opposing viewpoints.
  • Encouraging Intellectual Humility: The book promotes intellectual humility, acknowledging the limits of one's own knowledge and recognizing that it's okay to be uncertain about certain issues. This can foster a more respectful and empathetic attitude towards others' perspectives and contribute to more constructive dialogues.
  • Strengthening Decision Making: By honing critical thinking skills, readers can make more informed and sound decisions in their personal and professional lives. This can lead to better problem-solving abilities and an enhanced capacity to analyze complex issues.
  • Resisting Manipulation and Misinformation: In a world inundated with information, learning to think critically can help readers resist manipulation and identify misinformation or disinformation. By applying the principles from the book, readers can become less susceptible to being swayed by false narratives and propaganda.
  • Fostering Empathy and Understanding: Understanding the underlying processes of critical thinking can lead to increased empathy and understanding towards others. This empathy can bridge divides, facilitate meaningful conversations, and promote positive interactions even in the face of disagreement.
  • Promoting Intellectual Curiosity: Jacobs' book encourages readers to be intellectually curious and engage with a wide range of subjects and ideas. By doing so, readers can expand their knowledge and perspectives, leading to a more enriched and fulfilling intellectual life.
  • Enhancing Communication Skills: Improved critical thinking can also lead to better communication skills. Readers can learn to express their thoughts clearly and effectively, while also actively listening to others' viewpoints, thereby fostering better communication and cooperation in various contexts.


The following is a recap of key concepts. The author may summarize the core ideas and strategies presented throughout the book. This could include techniques for critical thinking, identifying biases, and engaging in constructive dialogue with others.

  • Emphasis on open-mindedness: The conclusion might emphasize the importance of open-mindedness and intellectual humility. It may encourage readers to be receptive to new information and willing to change their views when presented with evidence and compelling arguments.
  • Reflecting on personal growth: The author may prompt readers to reflect on their own thinking habits and how they have evolved throughout the book. Self-awareness is often a vital component of improving one's thinking processes.
  • Addressing polarization: Given the theme of a world at odds, the conclusion might discuss the challenges of polarization and echo the importance of finding common ground and building bridges between different perspectives.
  • Practical applications: The conclusion may offer practical steps or exercises that readers can implement in their daily lives to become more thoughtful and discerning thinkers.
  • Encouragement and hope: Concluding with an optimistic tone, the author might encourage readers not to be disheartened by the complexities of the world but instead be inspired to embrace the journey of lifelong learning and critical thinking.